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Italian Wine 101

Marin Preske

Photo: Marin Preske

When I began working at Esters Wine Shop & Bar, I would send guests looking for Italian wines like Barolo and Barbaresco, to colleagues for assistance. At the time, the only Italian wine I was familiar with was Pinot Grigio, and bad mass-produced Pinot Grigio at that. I knew little about Italian wines until I began buying bottles of them. I started with Nebbiolo, a grape that produces full-bodied and aromatic wines.

But then... I fell in love with the grape, and kept buying bottles of Nebbiolo, which ended my Italian Wine 101 education. That is, until Kathryn Coker, owner of Esters, introduced me to Marin Preske, a certified sommelier (CMS) at the acclaimed Italian restaurant, Osteria Mozza, in Los Angeles. And just like that, school was officially back in session. Below, Marin and I discuss which Italian wines you should begin drinking, what wines pair well with pizza and pasta, and why not all Pinot Grigio's are created equally.

What’s a good Italian wine region and varietal (grape) to learn about?

There are a few different approaches I could recommend, but to keep it simple, I’d start with red grapes. There are three main red varietals in Italy that are delicious and reflect the region in which they’re most commonly found: Nebbiolo in the north, Sangiovese in central Italy and Aglianico in the south. These grapes make different kinds of wines. For example, Sangiovese is the main grape in Chianti wines, as well as Brunello di Montalcino wines. So there's a range of wines to choose from, whether you prefer a high-end Brunello or a more affordable option like Chianti or Chianti Classico. The key is to taste the three side-by-side to get a sense of the different grapes, wine styles and the areas of Italy where the grapes are grown. This helps you learn not only about Italian wines, but will determine what you like to drink. So have some friends over and open a few bottles!

Whenever I go to an Italian restaurant, I usually order pizza, specifically a Margherita pie. What’s a good wine to pair with it?

There’s a saying, “What grows together, goes together,” meaning the dishes of a region typically complement the traditional wines of that place. I find this more often than not to be true. So in that respect, a Pizza Margherita, originally born in Naples, would go well with a Piedirosso-Aglianico blend, a wine typically found in Campania. However, I like my pizza with a light, fruity red like Schiava or an Italian sparkling wine such as Franciacorta (made in the same method as Champagne).

What about pasta pairings? What are good wines to pair with lasagna bolognese and cacio e pepe?

With lasagna bolognese, it’s really Sangiovese all around. The meat ragù needs a wine that will stand up to it with enough tannin [Ed. note: a textural element that makes your mouth feel temporarily dry] and acidity to cut through some of the richness without overpowering it.

A Roman dish like cacio e pepe is one of the most simple pasta dishes, but the fresh black pepper lends spice. Regionally, Frascati is the white wine of the area, though I think any medium-body, crisp white would be a nice pairing, such as a Soave or for a red, a Barbera. The key is a wine that’s not too high in alcohol, as the alcohol would carry the heat of the cracked black pepper rather than rounding it out.

Pinot Grigio has a bad rep for being cloyingly sweet. How do you think this came to be?

As with other popular wines and wine-making regions (ex. Prosecco and Chianti), sometimes when production is saturated, there's going to be a lot of wine that is made for quantity over quality. This can mean grapes are planted in areas not ideal for their growth, or producers who make wines in styles they think consumers will enjoy, like leaving or adding sugar to the wine. That said, there are always going to be quality versions, it just helps to know a few names and/or regions to separate the delicious, from the mass-market stuff.

What producers are making great Pinot Grigio… for under $20?

When it comes to Pinot Grigio, two beautiful examples come from the two regions in Italy where Pinot Grigio grows best: Elena Walch in Trentino-Alto Adige and Livio Felluga in Friuli Venezia Giulia. These are crisp and dry Pinot Grigios that you want to drink... and drink... and drink.

What Italian wine regions are you excited about?

Nebbiolo-based wines from Alto Piemonte (Northern Piedmont) and wines from Mount Etna in Sicily. The former is a cooler, Alpine-type climate that makes wines with the most beautiful perfume. I think, when in the right hands, Nebbiolo can really shines when it comes from this area. Lighter in body, with aromatics of red cherry and red rose, these are super elegant wines. Since they’re not as famous as wines from Barolo or Barbaresco further south, they also tend to be a great value. The Mount Etna wines (labeled Etna Bianco, Etna Rosso, etc.) are made from grapes grown on the slopes of an active volcano in northeast Sicily. They have this addictive mix of aromatics, minerality (think of all that volcanic ash in the soil!) and an energy that I attribute to their environment.

Thank you Marin for the fun and informative lesson.

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